Engineering can feel like a daunting concept to implement with your preschoolers, but young children are already capable and interested in engineering and design problems! They ask questions and identify problems to solve. So how can you engage your preschoolers in engineering? This blog post explains preschool engineering during a free-play session by building on children’s interests and identifies crucial teaching practices to push children’s engineering ideas and thinking forward.
About the author: Gurupriya a doctoral candidate in the Ed.D Curriculum and Instruction program at Boise State University, Gurupriya's work and research interests revolve around high quality preschool STEM practices and opportunities for inclusion of students with diverse needs. She received her Master’s degree in Early Childhood Special Education from Syracuse University and worked as a preschool teacher in inclusive preschool programs. Prior to that, she worked as a special education teacher for young children with developmental disabilities in India. As a Research Assistant at Boise State University, she assists in research projects assessing teacher and parent perceptions and beliefs on early STEM education, and developing teacher supports for the implementation of early STEM education.
This blog post contains excerpts from an engineering activity conducted in an early childhood setting as part of the author’s dissertation.
Shanina’s preschoolers have been reading about different animal habitats. Some children expressed interest in building shelters.
Children’s interests, including interests related to engineering, can be sparked in numerous ways. Recognizing those interests requires keen observation by early educators. Interest may come from reading a story on the rug, from observations and exploration during play, or from sharing about life outside of school, or in the form of an engineering challenge. Research suggests that preschool children should actively engage in inquiry-based projects by asking questions, collecting data, and presenting it. A skilled teacher is crucial in guiding children through the experience (Torres-Crespo et al., 2014).
Problem-based scenarios can engage children in STEM activities and expand their interests. Educators present young children with a problem relevant to their lives, then encourage and support children as they imagine, plan, create, and improve solutions to these engineering design challenges (Tippet & Milford, 2017). Let’s take a look at how Shanina used problem-based scenarios to engage her preschoolers.
Wooden blocks and plastic straw ‘forts’: building on children’s interests.
To expand children’s interest in building shelters, Shanina set up a provocation at the block area. She set up wooden blocks and plastic straws of various sizes and taped pictures of different shelters built using blocks and loose parts.
Then she posed a problem-based scenario and invited children to explore further, saying, “I wonder if we could build a shelter for the animals using the blocks and straws. How can we make it stay standing?”
Children initially began exploring the plastic straws, but a group of three children soon had an idea of their own—they wanted to build a fort. Shanina encouraged them by asking, “What is your idea?” and “What are you going to use to build the fort?”. Children specified that they wanted to build a fort that could fit the three of them inside and hold the weight of the blanket covering it.
Children began connecting the plastic straws and building a cube-shaped structure that was as tall as them. While building, the children had an idea to make an entrance to the fort by leaving one part of the structure open. However, this led to design flaws:
- a) the structure began tilting to one side and almost tipped over due to the lack of a balanced foundation, and
- b) the entrance was too small for the children to fit through.
Rather than point out these design flaws, Shanina gave children the opportunity to:
- explore with the materials laid out at the block area,
- create their structure using the materials they chose,
- test out their creations to see how well they would hold,
- reflect on the testing results, and then
- problem-solve how to improve upon their creations
In doing so, Shanina observed how children worked together to build their fort, problem-solve to strengthen the fort, create an even foundation, and leave enough space to enter the fort.
To anchor children’s thinking in the engineering design process, Shanina asked open-ended questions such as, “what is your design for the structure?” and “how will you make sure it stays up?”. Open-ended questions can also support children in thinking critically about their design and work together to solve their design problem.
To complete their fort, children wanted to cover it with a blanket. Shanina prompted the children to think intentionally about their design, asking, “Do you think the fort will be able to stay standing with the blanket over it? Let’s find out!”
The children tested two blankets of different weights. The first was too heavy—parts of the fort gave into the weight. But rather than get dejected, the children rebuilt their fort, urging, “It’s ok, we can build it again!”. They negotiated with one another, commenting, “You connect the straws on that side, and I’ll work on this side” and “Can you get me some straws from the box?”. Upon completion, the children tested their fort with the second, lighter blanket and found that the fort held its weight well.
By building on children’s curiosity, what started as a simple exploration of connecting straws transformed into a fort construction engineering challenge. With teacher facilitation, children worked together to construct the fort and think through issues that arose. Using a problem-based scenario, introducing open-ended materials and loose parts, and asking open-ended questions engaged children’s interests and encouraged them to think critically as they participated in a problem-solving process.
Often this begins by identifying and documenting children’s curiosity, wonderings, and interests and then building on it. It can take the form of children or teachers identifying a problem or question that needs a solution. Perhaps students identified something in the playground that needs fixing or have a question about how a tool works. Perhaps during a lesson on habitats, students want to know more about birds and where they live. No matter the starting point for students’ interest in a topic, posing or framing it within a problem-based scenario, introducing open-ended materials and loose parts, and asking open-ended questions can not only build on children’s interests but also further encourage children to critically think about and engage in the problem-solving process.
1. Identify a problem meaningful and relevant to children’s lives and interests.
2. Use everyday materials available in and around your classroom and encourage children to experiment using them in different ways.
3. Give children the time and space to explore, make mistakes, and try again.
4. Ask open-ended questions to anchor children’s ideas in the engineering design process and deepen their thinking and problem-solving skills.
What have been your experiences with engaging students in engineering? How did students respond to it?